A Conversation with Fred Patten
by Phil Geusz
Tomorrow, December 11, 2015, Fred Patten will celebrate his 75th birthday. If you don’t already know who Fred is and why it’s important that the fandom (and especially the FWG!) should honor him, well… Perhaps the best way to learn more about who Fred is and what he’s done for us both as furries and as authors would be to read on.
1) You’re often credited as being among the handful of founders of the furry fandom. Can you give us an idea of what it was like, who else you personally knew that was involved, and generally tell us how it all came together?
I remember attending the 1980 Worldcon as a regular s-f fan, one of several from the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. I was particularly close with Mark Merlino at the time; we had recently created the C/FO and “invented anime fandom”. One of the favorites of both Merlino & I was Kimba the White Lion, though most of the other early anime fans preferred the giant robot cartoons. At the 1980 Worldcon, Merlino & I and Nicolai Shapero were intrigued by a painting in the Art Show of a cat-woman in a military flight suit standing next to a realistic futuristic fighter plane. The artist was nearby and introduced himself as Steve Gallacci, a USAF technical illustrator. The painting was a standalone illustration from a series that he’d had in mind for years, about a star system of artificially-evolved animal peoples who had forgotten their past and rediscovered it during a space war between the cat and rabbit nations. He had a manila folder full of rough notes in cartoon form that he offered to show us. We didn’t just glance at it; we studied it in detail. At the convention’s Art Auction all three of us got into a bidding war for that painting. None of us got it; I don’t know who did.
I don’t know who else joined the “Gallacci group” to look at his notes at the 1980 Worldcon, but Tim Fay and John Cawley were early members. Gallacci was just getting out of the USAF; he settled in Seattle, and came to most of the s-f and comics conventions on the West Coast during the 1980s. We used to gather around Gallacci at these conventions to see his latest addition to his notes, and the group gradually grew. Many of us were cartoonists, and traded sketches in the ever-present Black Sketchbooks. During conversations with each other, we discovered that we all particularly liked the stories that featured intelligent animals and animal-like aliens; Watership Down and Animal Farm, Kimba the White Lion and Bambi, and so on. During 1982 Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH came out and was a big topic of discussion.
As a separate matter, Vootie, the fanzine of the Funny Animal Liberation Front started in 1977. I had tried to join, but was turned down because I wasn’t a cartoonist. It was an APA for comic-book fans who didn’t like costumed superheroes and could draw. One of its members was Marc Schirmeister in L.A. During 1981 and 1982 it became obvious that Vootie was dying because of apathy among its organizers. Schirm tried to keep it going but he failed; the last Vootie was in February 1983. Schirm then organized Rowrbrazzle as its replacement, but he made an interest in funny animals rather than an ability to draw cartoons as the criterion for membership. I could write about them so I was accepted, as were several members of the Gallacci group, ex-Vootie members, and others who could draw funny animals; some friends of members. Schirm went on a recruiting drive among the 1983-84 Cal Arts students and made several of them Rowrbrazzle members whether they wanted to be or not. Most of them never contributed; Bruce Timm provided a “Duck Savage” drawing that he’d already done.
Rowrbrazzle #1 appeared in February 1984. By that time, early furry fandom was dividing between those who were in Rowrbrazzle and contributing to its quarterly issues, and those who gathered at conventions who were organized more by Mark Merlino & Rod O’Riley. Gallacci was concentrating on finalizing his story into publishable form as the comic book Albedo. The members of Rowrbrazzle #1 were Marc Schirmeister the Official Editor, Greg Bear, Jerry Beck, John Cawley, Dave Bennett, Jerry Collins, Tim Fay, Jim Groat, Richard Konkle, Brett Koth, Steve Martin, Bruce Timm, Ken Sample, Taral Wayne, Deal Whitley, Colleen Winters, and me. Some like Bruce Timm weren’t interested in furry fandom and dropped out right away. Jerry Beck got interested in animation. Deal Whitley was as active in furry fandom as his health would permit, until he became the first furry fan who died. John Cawley shifted over to Merlino’s group which evolved to putting on parties at conventions. Merlino’s Furry Parties, advertised on flyers throughout the convention, were responsible for the fandom coming to be called furry fandom. Other early furry fans were Roz Gibson, Mike Kazaleh, Stan Sakai, Tracy Horton who married Mike Kazaleh, Edd Vick, Diana Vick (no relation), Monika Livingston, and Kjartan Arnorsson. Merlino & O’Riley expanded the Furry Parties at s-f & comics conventions into the first furry conventions, the ConFurences, in 1989.
One of the early discussion topics in Rowrbrazzle was what was happening in the fandom. This is why I say that Rowrbrazzle wasn’t responsible for furry fandom, but it does prove that furry fandom existed by 1984. It was more than the Vootie membership and the Gallacci groups at conventions.
2) You’re also credited in a similar way with the founding of the anime and “My Little Pony” fandoms. Have you any comments on how they came to be and your role in the matter? And… Just how did it come to pass that you’ve been at center of so many important cultural movements?
I may have co-founded furry fandom and anime fandom, but I’ve never watched My Little Pony. You can’t blame that on me.
I joined the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society in 1960, which meets every Thursday evening, and I was an active s-f fan from 1960 until I had my stroke in 2005. I credit many of the LASFS members of the 1960s through the 2000s with helping me get established as an active fan who was on s-f convention committees, helped organize s-f theater parties, etc. I attended some of the first meetings of mystery fandom and Oz fandom, but I never became a leader in those. I was active early in comics fandom — I had an article on Mexican comic book superheroes in Alter Ego, one of the first comics fanzines, in 1965 — but I was not very interested in the costumed superheroes that most comics fans concentrated on. That’s why my interest ran more to the funny animals, the French bandes dessinées, and later the Japanese manga. I’ve always had a habit of volunteering, usually as a Secretary. When anime fandom and later furry fandom began to coalesce, I used my experience from the LASFS in organizing anime and furry clubs that wouldn’t fall apart in a few months.
3) All of the fandoms you’re involved in can in at least some fairness be described as a bit “geeky”. (Keep in mind that I’m saying this as a proud, card-carrying geek myself.) Do you consider yourself a bit of a geek? Do you have any observations or comments on geekdom in general?
Yes, I’m a geek and proud of it. I was never interested in the social life of high school or college. I’m a lifelong bachelor. My mother wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer or something prestigious, but I’ve always liked books and became a librarian. I became nervous about what would happen to me when I graduated from college, and I joined a fraternity to force myself into a social life, but I hated it. When I discovered s-f fandom, they were my kind of people.
4) You’re a bibliophile and book-reviewer of note. About how many reviews do you suppose you’ve written over the years? Care to share some happy memories of the very finest or otherwise outstanding works you’ve read or reviewed?
I’ve probably written over a thousand reviews of furry books alone. Probably over 2,000 all told. My earliest review was of an arguably furry book; H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy, in a 1962 fanzine. I’m depressed to read today a list in ISFDB of the reviews that I wrote in the 1970s; I don’t remember many of the books at all, much less what I said about them. From 1975 to 1977, I was the publisher, co-editor, and a major reviewer for Delap’s F&SF Review, a monthly s-f reviewzine; about 28 regular issues. Richard Delap & I argued about the direction that it should take, and he “fired” me to edit & publish it himself. It only lasted two more issues.
The review that I remember best was of Stephen King’s The Shining. I said that it was a very suspenseful horror novel, but there were several of what seemed like buildups to horror subclimaxes that were aborted and didn’t go anywhere. I got a letter from King saying that was all his editor’s fault. His original manuscript had been twice as long, and all those buildups had led to horror scenes that the editor had edited out; like the ominous firehose on a wall of the hotel that had attacked the boy before the scene had been cut.
Another is of Forest Wars by Graham Diamond; a truly awful novel that I had fun tearing apart. It had a vast empire that it took a man on horseback three whole days to gallop across. Since a galloping horse can only cover about 20 miles a day, that’s about 60 or 70 miles across. Some vast empire. Retreating farmers cut down their fields of grain rather than leaving it for slavering hordes of wild dogs to eat. Were the dogs expected to harvest the grain and bake it into bread for themselves?
5) What advice would you give to someone who seeks to review books today? Or, just someone who loves them?
Furry fandom needs more book reviewers. Say why you like or don’t like something, not just that you like or don’t like it. Remember that your review is just your opinion, and that usually for every opinion that you have, someone intelligent will have a different opinion; so say “I liked because” or “I didn’t like because” rather than “This is good because” or “This is bad because”. But if a novel is truly bad, don’t spare the sarcasm; but make clear why it’s bad. Try to read widely so you will recognize allusions or references.
6) You also have a long, intimate history with the SF fandom. What are some of your happiest memories in association with it? What was the fandom like when you were young? How have things changed?
In the 1950s and 1960s, s-f was taken much less seriously than it is today. That was the period when the general public thought that s-f fans believed that Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were real people, and that rocket ships to the Moon were ridiculous fantasies. I wrote a book report on one volume of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in high school, and my teacher didn’t bother reading it because she said that no flying saucer book could be worth reviewing. S-f fans in that period had a saying, “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a fan.” Fans identified with Slan by A. E. van Vogt, about hidden mutants who were really superior to ordinary humans. In the 1950s it was theoretically possible to read every s-f book ever published, and several fans tried to. In the 1950s original s-f paperbacks began to be published, which libraries wouldn’t buy; and several s-f fans started collections of “the s-f that the libraries won’t touch”. After I joined the LASFS while at UCLA in 1960, I had my first experiences away from home or a college fraternity. I had never been outside California before; I went to the Worldcons in Seattle in 1961, Chicago in 1962, and other cities, eventually going to Heidelburg, London, Melbourne, and other cities on other continents in association with Worldcons. I was part of a carful of LASFS members who drove cross-country to the Worldcon in Washington D.C. in 1963. We visited Robert Heinlein outside of Colorado Springs one day and slept overnight in his bomb shelter; “Farnham’s Freehold”. I was in another LASFS caravan to the 1966 Worldcon in Cleveland. We visited national and state parks on the way, and slept in sleeping bags under the stars. We stopped in Zion National Park for lunch. There were signs around the lunch area, “Do not feed the animals or encourage them to come close. They carry rabies and plague.” As soon as we unpacked our sandwiches, the chipmunks came running from nowhere, raced up our legs onto our arms, bit our fingers to make us drop the sandwiches, dived after them, and were out of sight with the sandwiches in less than a minute. In another park around Illinois where we slept in sleeping bags, in the morning the other fans pointed out that I had dusty raccoon pawprints all over me. When I went to the Worldcon in Heidelburg in 1970, I joined a group of French and Belgian fans driving to Brussels after the con. We drove in Claude Dumont’s car; he was known as the only s-f fan who had served in the French Foreign Legion. In Brussels I got into what I called “The Mystery of Lambert Lamont”. I was the only American in a group of four or five Belgian s-f & comics fans. I noticed one day that the Belgian paper money we had had a picture of a man in Medieval clothes captioned Lambert Lamont. I asked who Lambert Lamont was. “Who? Some actor? Never heard of him.” “Well, he’s on your paper money!” “So he is. I still never heard of him.” We spent the whole day asking shopkeepers and waiters and everybody we met who Lambert Lamont had been, and nobody knew him. It wasn’t until I got back to Los Angeles and looked him up in an encyclopedia that I found that he had been a 16th-century minor Flemish artist. I can probably come up with other memories if I think about it a while.
7) Your long and distinguished career involves contributions to and involvement in both film/TV and more literary pursuits. Do you favor one over the other? If so, which? How do you feel they differ artistically?
I favor the literary pursuits. I’ve been in some colorful film/TV moments, but somehow the literary moments seem more serious and lasting. I do remember that the first meeting of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization, the anime club that started within the LASFS, was lightly attended because most of the s-f fans had been lured away by the coming premiere of the first Star Wars movie. George Lucas & company was very unsure of how the public would react to it, and Charles Lippincott, its publicity agent, wanted to pack its premiere with hardcore s-f fans who would be guaranteed to like it. I think that Lippincott was rehearsing the fans to act enthusiastic. He hardly had to; we were probably more enthusiastic about it than he was. But in general I remember going to little-theater productions of plays adapted from Ray Bradbury’s short stories; Harlan Ellison getting furious when we kept asking how, in a future where nobody knew what jellybeans were, a huge heap of jellybeans was valued at $150,000 worth; and so on.
8) What have you learned in a long, distinguished life? Have you any advice for young people just discovering the fandoms?
No advice. The world seems so different from what it used to be that I’m more inclined to ask young people for advice than to give it to them. I remember writing a comic-book script that had a scene where one character steps into a phone booth to call another; the artist changed it to the character pulling a cell phone from a pocket and calling the other. When Streamline Pictures licensed the movie Akira in 1989, it was the hottest and most cutting-edge anime feature around. When Streamline’s license expired in the mid-’90s and we had to renew it, the average anime fan’s reaction was, “That’s such an old movie. Why are you spending money on an old movie instead of getting one of the hot new titles?” I’m still insisting on paper books and avoiding Kindle.
I was raised by my grandmother (my mother’s mother) during World War II since both my mother and father had jobs. I started elementary school just after the war, when many of my classmates’ fathers had just returned to civilian life from the Army or Navy. The other kids had lots of stories from their fathers about The War. I didn’t know what they were talking about, because I had learned from my grandmother that The War had ended when the Union Army occupied New Orleans. When my mother found out about that, she brought me up to date; but my grandmother never accepted that the occupation of New Orleans by the Yankees wasn’t The End Of The World. (One of her complaints was, “Everybody in New Orleans used to be so polite, until the Union Army moved in and started enforcing the laws against dueling!”) I feel like my grandmother today; increasingly out of touch with the present.
9) What do you see for the future, both of furry specifically and the “geeky” fandoms in general?
I’m encouraged that what was “geeky” in my youth is no longer geeky, but a bit saddened because it’s no longer “special”. For furry, I don’t know. I’m a bit alarmed that what was a literary interest has been taken over by the fursuiters and the lifestylers. I hope that I last long enough to see.
So do we, Fred! May you be able to enjoy the fandom you did so much to create for many, many happy and productive years to come!
(In celebration of Fred’s 75th birthday, FurPlanet is offering six of Fred’s books on sale for 75% of their cover price, from Friday, December 11 through Sunday, December 13. You can find a full list with links here.)
3 thoughts on “Guest post: “A Conversation with Fred Patten” by Phil Geusz”
Happy belated birthday, Fred Patten, and thank you for your life of participation in our folk culture of science fiction, fantasy, and furry literature. Thank you too, Phil Geusz, for this interview. I’m afraid that if you hadn’t done it, no one would have. Too often we fail to chronicle the unique events and personal stories that inform our lives both public and private. Sometimes we participate in the beginnings of cultural movements, unaware of the significance, believing that our experiences are too minor to record. Years later we are left with fallible memories, pieces of the greater stories of our nation and world, unrecorded stories that only living persons can pass on in the oral history tradition. I hope that many people in the science fiction, fantasy and furry folk cultures will make some literary and visual records of their life experiences and share them.